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Proposed ENDA Could Raise Risk of Religious Discrimination Claims

Discrimination Training

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin and disability. Those who consider themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), however, are not protected from discrimination in 29 states or under federal law. If signed into law, the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), recently approved by the Senate, would change that by extending Title VII civil-rights protections to cover sexual orientation.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has already ruled transgendered employees and in some cases lesbian and gay employees are entitled to protection under sex discrimination provisions of Title VII. Providing Title VII protections for LGBT individuals will naturally increase the potential for lawsuits against employers by individuals seeking accommodations for their LGBT status. Ironically, complying with the law by enacting LGBT-supportive policies — as many American businesses have already done — may also increase exposure to litigation by employees claiming that such policies amount to religious discrimination.

For employers, Title VII requires reasonable religious accommodation so long as an employer is not going to be substantially burdened. Consequently, an employee may request to be excused from certain employer-related events that conflict with the employee's religious beliefs. If the employer refuses, the employee may allege the employer is creating a hostile work environment and bring a Title VII claim.

The conflict between those claiming religious rights and employers supporting LGBT rights was highlighted in a 2005 lawsuit by a former corporate security manager for Allstate Insurance Co. who alleged he was fired for writing an essay — published online — opposing same-sex marriage. Similarly, Julea Ward, a graduate student in the counseling program at Eastern Michigan University, filed a religious discrimination suit against the university after she was expelled for requesting a gay client be referred to someone else due to her religious beliefs.

While there have not been a significant number of lawsuits pitching religious rights against LGBT rights, statistics show an increase in discrimination complaints involving either sexual orientation or religion. According to the EEOC, religious complaints have increased by 63% in the past seven years. Between 2011 and 2012, California — the most active state with legislative or regulatory protection against LGBT discrimination — saw a 52% increase in employment-discrimination complaints involving sexual orientation.

As employers wait to see if ENDA is passed, the reality is that businesses and individuals are increasingly supportive of LGBT rights. Yet promoting these rights requires a delicate balancing act to avoid threatening the protections in place for religious beliefs. WeComply's Preventing Discrimination and Harassment training courses provide managers, supervisors and employees with training on the law and ways to recognize and prevent discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Categories: Discrimination & Harassment Compliance
Tags: Preventing Discrimination and Harassment

ACC Alliance PartnerProskauer
Thomson Reuters